The Wisdom of Insecurity by Alan Watts

It’s hard to write of a review of Alan Watts’ books because there’s so much in them. It’s like trying to summarize the ocean. Each time I re-read one of his works, I come away with something different. So I’m not going to try to encapsulate all that Watts says. Instead, I’ll just described what impressed me in this reading, using mostly Watts’ own words, since he can express himself better than I can paraphrase him.

If you want a full summation of the book, Watts gives it succinctly in the last two sentences of the final page:

Life requires no future to complete itself nor explanation to justify itself. In this moment it is finished.

By “finished,” he means not ended but complete, as a completed work of art requires no additional gloss or explanation. Watts spends most of the book showing how both science and religion attempt to supply this additional gloss, and how their systems of thought often wind up replacing the reality they are meant to explain.

That there is a way of looking at life apart from all conceptions, beliefs, opinions, and theories is the remotest of all possibilities from the modern mind. If such a point of view exists, it can only be in the brain of a moron. We suffer from the delusion that the entire universe is held in order by the categories of human thought, fearing that if we do not hold to them with the utmost tenacity, everything will vanish into chaos.

In holding so tightly to a system of understanding, whether it be scientific, religious, economic, or political, we lose touch with reality. The mental constructs we’ve created to understand, predict, and manipulate the world prevent us from actually seeing it.

Ordinarily, [the basic principles of philosophy, religion, and metaphysics] are used as attempts to stand outside oneself and the universe to grasp them and to rule them… The powers of technology have availed for little save to speed the process to a point of unbearable tension… If scientific thought has weakened [religion’s] power we need have no regrets, for the “God” to which it could have brought us was not the unknown Reality which the name signifies, but only a projection of ourselves–a cosmic, discarnate “I” lording it over the universe.

The true splendor of science is not so much that it names and classifies, records and predicts, but that it observes and desires to know the facts, whatever they may turn out to be… In this openness and sincerity of mind it bears some resemblance to religion, understood in its other and deeper sense. The greater the scientist, the more he is impressed with his ignorance of reality, and the more he realizes that his laws and labels, descriptions and definitions, are the products of his own thought…

What he does not know seems to increase in geometric progression to what he knows. Steadily he approaches the point where what is unknown is not a mere blank space in a web of words but a window in the mind, a window whose name is not ignorance but wonder.

The timid mind shuts this window with a bang, and is silent and thoughtless about what it does not know in order to chatter the more about what it thinks it knows. It fills up the uncharted spaces with mere repetition of what has already been explored. But the open mind knows that the most minutely explored territories have not really been known at all, but only marked and measured a thousand times over. And the fascinating mystery of what it is that we mark and measure must in the end “tease us out of thought” until the mind forgets to circle and to pursue its on processes, and becomes aware that to be at this moment is pure miracle.

There’s quite a bit overlap between Watts’ book and Anthony De Mello’s Awareness. Both authors have a deep knowledge of Eastern and Western religion, and both have a strong mystical bent, arguing persuasively that experience and language’s representation of experience cannot ever be the same thing. As we come to dwell more and more in the latter, in the conceptual world, we have less and less visceral experience.

Watts spends much of the book describing how our attempts to avoid pain are themselves the source of great pain. If something hurts, it hurts. But if, during the hurt, we add to it an insistence that the world not be hurtful, that it be something other than it is, we simply compound the hurt with psychological discord and strife.

In The Varieties of Religious Experience, William James remarked:

A strange moral transformation has within the past century swept over our Western world. We no longer think we are called on to face physical pain with equanimity. It is not expected of a man that he should either endure it or inflict much of it, and to listen to the recital of cases of it makes our flesh creep morally as well as physically. The way in which our ancestors looked on pain as an eternal ingredient of the world’s order, and both caused and suffered it as a matter-of-course portion of their day’s work, fills us with amazement.

Watts notes how much of today’s world is engineered to try to guarantee certainty, to guarantee a future that is predictable and known, and if not pleasurable, at least comfortable and free from pain. When the world turns out not to go the way we expected, we have to endure the pain of that, plus the emotional strife of being surprised, disappointed, and slighted. Illness, misfortune, and death are no longer part and parcel of existence, they are injustices and we are their victims.

Both Watts and William James point out that when a mind rejects suffering and death as natural parts of life, it can only justify these them by creating a beneficent father figure whose loving plan is beyond our understanding, to be concluded outside of time in a world that is larger, more real, and more permanent than our own.

Watts notes that it’s a lot easier to just accept these things as part of life. Hence, the wisdom of insecurity: there is no certainty from one moment to the next in this life. When you accept that, you begin to appreciate the wonder of the now.

Watts also touches on a point that De Mello stresses in Awareness. De Mello, a Jesuit with strong streaks of Hindu and Buddhist philosophy, says that often a religious person’s understanding of God is the last and strongest impediment to enlightenment. It’s usually a second-hand understanding, passed down from doctrine rather than experienced first-hand, and in the Judeo-Christian tradition, it carries the weight of damnation if you get it wrong. It is one of those beliefs “that if we do not hold to them with the utmost tenacity, everything will vanish into chaos.”

Both Watts and De Mello define belief as something you think you know, and faith is an acceptance of not knowing. “Almost all the spiritual traditions recognize that there is a stage in man’s development when belief…and its securities has to be left behind,” says Watts. When we are willing to make that leap, to relinquish the known and secure for the unknown and insecure, when we are ready to give up what we perceive as everything in exchange for nothing–no certainties, no guarantees–then we “come to a position from which the principal ideas of religion and metaphysics can once more become intelligible and meaningful–not as beliefs, but as valid symbols of experience.”

This is how I’ve always viewed the story of Adam and Eve. Not as a factual recounting of events in a distant age, but as a profoundly accurate and moving description of the universal human progression from innocence to experience, of the cost of knowledge and the painful emergence into adult consciousness. Whether or not the story portrays actual events is irrelevant. There is no truer account of human experience.

When I read Watts again in a year or two, it will be a different experience, a different reader opening a different book to find something new and unexpected.

You Play the Black and the Red Comes Up by Richard Hallas

Hallas’ novel opens with Richard Dempsey returning from a long day’s work at the diner to an empty house. Before he enters, he knows from the darkened windows that his wife has left him. Inside, he learns she’s taken their son and the family savings. She says he’ll never find her, but he knows she’s always dreamed of going to Hollywood.

This is Oklahoma in the late 1930’s, in the midst of the Great Depression and a crushing years-long drought. The world of glamour and sophistication that Hollywood painted on the silver screen in those days must have looked like heaven compared to the stark and pitiless world in which Richard and Lois had been living. Richard Dempsey doesn’t blame his wife for leaving. Who wouldn’t want to trade such a grim reality for a shot at one that was so much brighter?

Dempsey wants his son back, but with only two dollars and change to his name, his only chance of getting to California is to hop a freight train and ride with the hobos. Dempsey barely survives the multi-day journey, locked inside a freight car with dozens of other men by cops who want to push all the homeless out of the Western railroad towns and into California. Dempsey and his pack of fellow travelers, after being ripped off by cops and by each other, nearly roast as the sweltering box car crosses the desert, and nearly freeze as it crosses the mountains. Dempsey arrives in California exhausted, dehydrated, hungry, and broke, but still determined and full of hope.

The novel that seems to be about a man winning his family back turns out not to be that at all. Dempsey, now a drifter, winds up falling in with a number of shady characters, hustlers and survivors who are doing what they have to do in a failing economy that has no place for them.

Dempsey befriends a film director, gets roped into a scam with a con man from a gambling house, meets a couple of heavy-drinking divorcĂ©es, and then… Well, since this book is more about plot than character, I won’t spoil anything. Let’s just say the action rolls along at a very fast clip, and not always in the direction you expect.

Hallas’ book reads like a noir version of The Grapes of Wrath. Imagine Raymond Chandler and James M. Cain co-writing a condensed version of Steinbeck’s novel, and swapping out the Joad family for an inarticulate loner with an unfortunate instinct for trouble.

The populist left-leaning political movements of the era that Steinbeck portrayed with a visceral sympathy are mocked with withering satire here. And that’s not because Hallas lacks sympathy for the plight of his characters. He’s just a little less earnest than Steinbeck, and a little more cynical. In this book, the impossible promises of populist politicians merely play on the desperate hopes of the oppressed, who are willing to replace the knaves in power with fools who actually believe the utopian vision they are peddling.

Hallas’ prose is lean and spare, like Cain’s, and the mid-1930’s Los Angeles it portrays is very much like the one Philip Marlowe inhabited, with people from all tiers of society drinking and misbehaving together in a corrupt and decadent city with plenty of flash and little substance.

Hallas’ novel was published in 1938, a year earlier than Steinbeck’s, so you can’t call it derivative, though its stark portrayal of the Okie migration bears striking similarities to the journey Steinbeck portrayed in greater detail. It was also a year earlier than the first of Chandler’s Marlowe novels, The Big Sleep, though Chandler had been publishing in magazines for several years before You Play the Black appeared.

All three books bear similar themes of California as the land of promise and disappointment. One of the main characters in Hallas’ novel, the successful movie director Quentin Genter, tells Dempsey that the Southern California climate makes people foolish and delusional. They cross the mountains from the east and lose their judgment and perspective, ready to accept the most outlandish ideas and practices as sensible and normal. Genter prides himself on being the only man in Los Angeles who actually knows he’s insane.

After a series of improbable and increasingly desperate escapades lead him further and further from the life he wants, Richard Dempsey reflects:

…some lands were like a father to a man, and beat him; and some were a mother to him and loved him; and some were a wife, and had to be loved; but California was just a whore who dropped her pants to the first man that came along with a watering-pot.

If you like the crime and noir fiction of the 1930s and 1940s, you’ll like this book. It’s a quick read that never bogs down. It was a bestseller when it was published, and it must have captured the mood of the country. “If you prefer sweetness light,” said the review in the San Francisco Chronicle, “you’ll think this book is just horrid.”

[Notes on names: Eric Knight wrote this book under the pen name Richard Hallas. The narrator, known alternately as Richard or Dick, never gives his true surname, but his friend Smitty “always called me Dempsey right from the first because he said I was kind of built like the champ. I got used to it.” The title refers to the Murphy’s law of the roulette wheel, where the ball always seems to land on the color you didn’t pick. That metaphor works for both the main character, in whose life nothing seems to go as planned, and for the reader, who is constantly trying to predict the next plot twist, and keeps coming up wrong.]

Vernon Subutex One by Virginie Despentes

I received the UK edition of this book as a gift a few months ago (it won’t be published in the US until later in 2019). I twice tried to start it, and twice put it down after a few pages thinking, “I can’t read this. This reminds me of the most depressing parts of the DC punk scene back the eighties and early nineties, the guys who spent their last dollars on beer instead of heating their apartments. This is about the ones who didn’t grow up.”

The third time I picked up the book, I read random pages from the middle, and I was hooked. The author, Virginie Despentes, is a phenomenal writer with an extraordinarily deep and perceptive mind, and an almost unparalleled ability to portray the minds and experiences of a broad cast of very different people. I went back to page one, read the book all the way through, and came away thinking this is one of the best novels I have read in many, many years.

Vernon Subutex is a former record store owner, now out of work and out of options. When the book opens, he’s scrounging tobacco from last night’s cigarette butts to roll into his morning smoke. His unemployment benefits have run out, he’s about to be evicted from his apartment, and his benefactor, the rock star Alex Bleach, has just died.

Things go downhill from there.

I was right in my assessment of the first few pages. This book is about exactly the kinds of people I knew back in DC when Fugazi and Bad Brains were playing at the 9:30 Club and DC Space. Despentes writes about what happens to the rockers, the groupies, the partiers, the addicts, porn stars, transsexuals, Neo-Nazis, and wannabes as they approach age fifty.

Some, like the writer Xavier, have moved into traditional roles and become bitterly reactionary, self-centered, or self-pitying. Others, like the Hyena, adapted to a harsh and cynical world. Still others, like Pamela Kant, gave up on trying to fit in to a society that never did and never would accept them. Many, like Vernon, are just trying to find their way with ever fewer resources, fewer opportunities, and less energy.

We meet this sprawling cast of characters as Vernon drifts from home to home, couch to couch, in a futile effort to avoid ending up on the streets. In true punk fashion, Despentes presents her characters raw and unvarnished. The unrepentant porn star, the savage wife-beater, the neo-Nazis, the young Muslim girl who chooses the veil, the homeless, hulking and physically repulsive Olga–are all full-fledged human beings whose thoughts and feelings make sense, whether we agree with them or not.

In fact, an encounter near the end between the haughty right-wing Xavier and the homeless Olga illustrates the encounter between the reader and the text. Xavier crosses the street to talk to Vernon, who sits beside Olga, begging in front of a supermarket. Xavier has no intention of speaking with, or even acknowledging Olga, whom he finds disgusting. He crouches down in front of Vernon, close enough so that he doesn’t have to see Olga.

Olga, unbidden, talks to Xavier about the dog that was cruelly taken from her. Xavier too has just lost a dog, and has been too hard, too bitter to mourn. Olga’s eloquent expression of grief hits a nerve, takes him by surprise, and allows him to finally feel the extent of his loss. Along with his recognition of their mutual reactions to a shared experience comes a surprise recognition that this woman is not some repulsive “other,” but merely another version of himself in another context that terrifies him. This is himself as a woman at the midpoint of a life in which everything went wrong, in which he ceased to matter and lost all protection from the indignities and brutality of a society in decay.

Throughout the book, Despentes seems to say, “Let me show you the tawdriness, the ugliness of what you so love to despise. This is you. It’s ugly, isn’t it? But are you willing to see the beauty in it? Because it’s there if you look.”

This is where Despentes differs vastly from so many American writers. American readers seem to demand that characters whose political values or moral outlooks are opposed to their own be portrayed as unlikable and be condemned by the author. Despentes simply pumps her world at the reader through a fire hose and leaves it to you to figure out how you feel.

What comes out of that hose, like real life, is a mix of the good, the bad, and the ugly. What makes this book so good is its unflagging intensity, the scope and breadth of the world it portrays, its clear-eyed and justified rage, its untender appreciation of beauty. You can’t imagine that an author can convey such depth and poignancy writing to the machine gun beat of eighties punk, or that she can break your heart without an ounce of sentiment. But she does it. After three hundred and fifty pages of vivid writing that challenges you to think and feel, to revisit and re-evaluate perspectives you thought had settled, Vernon’s final descent into homelessness, when he suddenly identifies with the entire catalog of outcast humanity, is one of the most moving passages in all of literature.

I really hope this book finds an audience in the US when it comes out this fall.